Into Africa

Chico State students teach business smarts to African entrepreneurs

Courtesy Of SIFE

Global import:
Some of the products made by African entrepreneurs might be available at the second annual Chico State SIFE-sponsored International Trade Fair held in Acker Gym on Saturday, March 29.

Over winter break, four Chico State University students ventured to Botswana and South Africa to teach about business and came back with a lot more than a line on their résumés.

For a month beginning on Dec. 28, 2002, members of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) instructed women and orphaned children in Gabarone, Botswana, and teenaged students in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in collaboration with SIFE students from the University of Botswana and the University of the Western Cape.

The Chico students had to “try out” for the opportunity, and the team ended up with these four: Greg Yatman, an MBA student and the project team leader; Casey Hatcher, a marketing junior; Carrie Karnegis, a journalism senior; and Jill Zinke, a re-entry student who is a senior in the business program.

The project was planned with four global SIFE teams using e-mail and live chat rooms, said Curt DeBerg, the professor who oversees the Chico SIFE program.

Zinke was the resident expert, having taken a similar trip last year. The SIFE team of 2002 built the groundwork and established the relationships that the four this year continued with programs called Women in Free Enterprise and Wise Kid Wealthy Kid. “This year, it seemed like things ran so much more smoothly,” Zinke said.

The approach was much like that used by SIFE chapters all over the country: Take a group of people, usually schoolchildren, and teach them the principles of how to start, build and maintain a small business. The students set up a mock business and follow it through all the stages to success.

In the countries the Chico team visited, likely candidates for a successful business would be farming, fashion-making, day care or running a “tuck shop"—the small grocery stores necessary because most homes don’t have room to stockpile supplies so they make frequent shopping trips.

At the orphanage, where a plot of land for chickens and seedlings helps with expenses, the Chico team found young people aged 15 to 17 eager to learn how to start their own businesses. Their ideas were creative and sometimes poignant, like the young man who wanted to start a funeral business, because so many people in Africa lose loved ones to AIDS and can’t afford the rates charged by the funeral services.

“We had a whole bunch of misconceptions,” Yatman acknowledged. Hatcher said, “People tell you that in Africa they don’t have anything, that it’s Third World.” But the team visited shopping malls, easily found Internet connections, witnessed high-tech manufacturing operations and enjoyed other modern amenities.

All of the students the team taught spoke English, along with Afrikaans and at least one indigenous language.

The people they met were very interested in American culture. “They all wanted to come back with us,” Karnegis said of the South Africa children, and they wanted to know if the Americans knew Puff Daddy or Halle Berry. The avid television-watchers had to be reassured, Zinke said, that, “No, Americans are not all like on The Jerry Springer Show.”

Even as they admired Americans’ prosperity, some of the Africans initially resented the presumption implicit in SIFE’s being there. “There was definitely a sense of animosity that these white folks were going to come in and teach them a thing or two,” Zinke said of the Botswana women. The fact that the Chico SIFE members teamed up with students from local universities “provided a bit more validity to what we offered,” Hatcher said, and by the end the women were “won over.”

“We came with the credibility of an economic background that has been successful,” Yatman said. “But we also had to walk a tightrope, not saying, ‘We’re right, you’re wrong.'”

The team didn’t want to change African culture or ideals or even presume to tell Africans what their market should be. It did teach about market research—making sure something will sell before undertaking a business. “Most of them are in the selling mentality: make it and sell it,” Hatcher said. Many didn’t keep records of money going in and out of their existing businesses and didn’t deduct expenses and thus had a mistaken view of their profits.

Zinke gave the example of a woman who raised pigs, a business that was largely at the mercy of a fluctuating market. She was advised that if she kept track of the cost of the feed for the pigs, she might find that in seasons when pigs weren’t selling for much, it could be worthwhile to cut back on the number of animals she was raising.

All of the African entrepreneurs wanted to know how to export their products for sale on the international market, particularly in America. Unlike here, where “Made in the USA” is a symbol of pride, consumers in Botswana view their own country’s products as inferior. “If products are made in Botswana, people from Botswana don’t want them,” regardless of their quality, Hatcher said.

She said the Botswana government has been supportive of new businesses, offering grants and loans. A meeting between the SIFE team and the U.S. ambassador to Botswana, Joseph Huggins, was encouraging, Hatcher said, in that everyone seems open to export opportunities.

The people the Chico team worked with were very poor by American standards. There’s a wide gap between those with a lot of money and those with almost none at all. The students visited one settlement where 16 or 17 people lived in one tiny, makeshift shack constructed of car parts and old billboards. The teenagers the team worked with were better off than that group, because they could afford to go to school, which is not free there.

Even though the apartheid that locked black and “colored” residents out of work and educational opportunities was abolished 10 years ago, its effects still linger in South Africa, where many lack the means to move up from poverty. “Even though by law they’re not separate, they’re still separated,” Karnegis observed.

Several times, the SIFE members found themselves in the position of feeling a little superior—and then immediately feeling guilty for feeling that way. For four white students from Chico, they said, that was an education in itself.

“In Botswana, because of the hierarchical [structure], everyone has to check with everyone else before anything can be done,” Hatcher said. “So, everything is an hour behind. [And the attitude is,] if it doesn’t get done today, it will get done tomorrow. It’s hard to deal with, coming from a fast-paced society where if you’re five minutes late I’m mad at you. … We just decided to go with the philosophy, ‘When in Rome…'”

Also, while the cities sported impressive, well-built office buildings, the students would go inside only to find that the toilet seats were broken off and toilet paper and soap were often absent.

Zinke said the group’s members went “way out of our comfort zones,” particularly when they decided to stop while driving through an extremely poor neighborhood. “I felt like we were going to gawk and stare,” she said. “But the people were so warm and genuine.” Yatman, the group agreed, was the most affected by the experience—particularly by the needs of the poorest children. “I felt helpless,” he said.

In the end, the Chico students brought back more than the lingering effects of the hallucinogenic malaria medicine they took.

“We were over there teaching these incredible people,” Hatcher said. “I never taught a group of people that wanted to learn so much. They soaked up everything we had to say.”

DeBerg said that even in the midst of budget cuts to state schools, Chico State’s College of Business is expanding its global reach. An accrediting body called the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business is adopting new standards requiring universities to adapt to “strong and growing global economic forces” and also foster cultural diversity.

“I expect that Chico State’s College of Business will be entering into some new global partnerships soon, and the SIFE team is leading the way,” DeBerg said, mentioning communication with other SIFE teams in Mexico, Poland, Central Asia, Malaysia, Australia and South America.

A banquet last October raised much of the money for the trip, and Judy Sitton, the co-founder of Bi-Tech Software who is on SIFE’s Business Advisory Board, provided 30 percent of the funding needed. There are many other local businesses that support SIFE’s efforts. The main cost was the $2,000 for each of the four plane tickets. The students paid for their personal expenses, but teaching supplies were covered, along with the cash grants of about $20 given to the Africans for their businesses.

It was very important to the Chico students that the lessons they were teaching the Africans were applicable to real life there. Otherwise, Yatman said, “we would have just gone over to hear ourselves speak. And we can do that here.”

“The follow-up is so important,” Hatcher said. “It’s not like we just leave and, hey, we’re out of there.” The SIFE teams at the colleges there will do much of the follow-up, having set the entrepreneurs up with contacts in government and education.

“I told them I want to know when they start their business. I want to know how they do,” she said. “These students were so smart and creative. I really think they’ll succeed.”

If he gets an e-mail in five or 10 years from one of the people they helped, Yatman said, "that would be the true validation for everything we did there."